September 2017 | By Joe Snell | Photos contributed
CHICAGO – This year, Julie Kako was determined to put on an Assyrian Food Festival in Chicago. As the Special Events Coordinator for the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) Chicago Diocese Executive Committee, Kako knew that the church’s Bishop had wanted a festival in the city for years and the ACOE was having a hard time finding both a location and the proper permits.
No matter what it took, she said, she was going to get it done and by mid-July had received the permits needed to begin organizing. That left her with only six weeks to put on the festival by her target weekend at the end of August. To pull everything off, she later admitted, she needed her team to remain optimistic.
“I had no challenge,” Kako said. “I was positive and I made sure everyone was positive and on the same side as me and everything was done. I had a checklist and we went through all of them with no problem.”
The festival, which was held on Saturday, Aug. 26 and Sunday, Aug. 27 at the Morton Grove Park District, was the first Assyrian food festival in Chicago.
After obtaining a green-light from Morton Grove, Kako and her team went to work approving the layout of the park, scheduling the number of tents, tables, and chairs needed, and organizing the food items. She brought on Sargon Mando as the event’s food chairman and Munira Nano as her co-chair.
“Julie had many sleepless nights,” said Lina Eshaya, the treasurer of the ACOE Chicago Diocese committee. “It’s a lot of work that goes into it and she handled 90% of that with help from other committee members.”
The festival’s marketing strategy included announcements at churches, a social media post, radio station announcements, and banners throughout Chicago’s suburbs. The committee also bought six billboards to put up in Chicago off the highways close to O’Hare and downtown Chicago. As part of the marketing strategy, a sponsorship package was put together and Alliance Moving & Storage came on as the event’s big sponsor.
The ACOE Chicago Diocese committee, comprised of seventeen individuals from all five ACOE churches in Chicago, worked through each church’s special events committee and youth group to recruit volunteers. Over 200 volunteers were used across both days of the festival, including roughly 75 ACOE youth members.
By the time Dr. Sandra Odicho, youth president at Mar Gewargis church, was approached to volunteer, a lot of the planning was done and sponsors were already on board.
“They were on top of it,” Odicho said. “The most difficult part was making sure we had the manpower to do everything in terms of set-up up and cleaning.”
The event kicked off with an opening ceremony in front of roughly 700 people. Diane Pathieu, an Assyrian and ABC Channel 7 News Anchor, was the master of ceremony and introduced Albert Youna, ACOE excutive committee president, as well as Morton Grove Mayor Mr. Dan DiMaria.
“It’s important for all of us as a village to see different types of traditions,” Mayor DiMaria said. “It brings unity and understanding and that’s good for any community.”
Morton Grove’s special events committee is involved in helping organize festivals throughout the suburb of Chicago. DiMaria says that the committee encourages numerous cultural events throughout the year. “If we can facilitate it, we want to do it,” he said.
Kako drew inspiration for Chicago’s food festival from the ACOE California Diocese, including the currency exchange of American money into the Assyrian dollar. No American money could be used at any of the booths. Instead, individuals were directed to an Assyrian currency exchange.
“If you had an American $20 bill, you had to exchange it for $20 in Assyrian money,” said Odicho. “It was printed money with Assyrian figures, so they had pictures of Ashur on the $5 bill. That’s what you would use to pay for food, drinks, and raffle tickets.”
The ACOE youth dance troupe was asked to perform at the opening ceremony as well as throughout the entire weekend. As a new dance troupe in Chicago, having officially organized in July, they performed in the traditional Assyrian khomala clothing .
The troupe, made up of ACOE youth between the ages of 16 and 22, had roughly a month to prepare for the event and practiced twice a week. During the festival, they performed two routines a day and three dances during each routine.
“One of the coolest aspects of our culture is the dance,” said dance troupe member Anabel Abraham. “Our dances date back hundreds of years and more. It’s part of our history, especially wearing the traditional clothing. It puts you more in touch with the culture.”
The festival was broken up into a food space, wine and beer garden, main stage for dancing, art exhibit, and a Kids Zone hosted by the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF), where children painted their own Gilgamesh scultpures.
A gift shop also featured items such as the kopala, the traditional Assyrian dancing cane, that were customized for Chicago sports teams including the Cubs.
Kako estimates that well over 4,000 people attended the festival across the entire weekend. That number surpassed her initial expectation of 2,000 attendees.
A large number of attendees were non-Assyrian and heard about the festival through word of mouth marketing. Weeks before the event, Dr. Odicho recalls one of her volunteers first hearing about the festival through his non-Assyrian co-workers.
“That’s how word got out amazingly,” she said.
Eshaya emphasized the importance of non-Assyrians attending the festival.
“When I was young, people didn’t know who Assyrians were,” Eshaya said. “It was a long explanation of who we are and where we came from. Putting this out there gives people the knowledge that this is who we are and where we came from.”